The Changeling, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: Hattie Morahan stars in Jacobean tragedy

Dominic Dromgoole's production finds black comedy in a grisly plot of murder, adultery and deceit

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Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling is as much a pitch-black comedy as a tragedy, the grisly plot of murder, adultery and deceit shot through with comic business. Dominic Dromgoole’s production, nicely staged in traditional fashion at this candle-lit Jacobean-style playhouse, skillfully manages this tonal changeling - although I left without feeling any deep chills.

Beatrice-Joanna has hated servant Deflores murder her fiance Alonzo, so she may marry another. Deflores demands her virginity as payment. The two become bound together, plotting further bed-swaps and deaths. Meanwhile a subplot is set in a madhouse, where a jealous husband locks up his wife; she’s wooed from within by her jailor and two inmates feigning madness...

The narrative surges forward in blind haste - characters not seeing the truth of a situation, blinded by their own desires, layers of irony piling up like dead bodies.

Hattie Morahan excellently captures Beatrice’s total self-delusion, and she’s charmingly duplicitous from the off - you can see the cogs turning behind her eyes. The audience, in on it all, get the considerable pleasure of watching someone play dumb, play dirty, play false. Morahan makes us complicit: always a hyper-expressive performer, here her gaze darts around us like a watchful sparrow. She masters Beatrice’s own changeable moods: giddiness and selfishness, lust and irritation, terror and brute survival.

Trystan Gravelle’s Welsh lilt lends a colloquial, matter-of-fact air to Deflores’ machinations. It’s very funny; he deadpans innuendo and delight alike (“I’m up to the chin in heaven” gets a big laugh - I guess you had to be there...). While it makes for a strikingly modern, clear reading, you lose a little menace. Especially given this gloomy, claustrophobic setting, it seems a slightly odd to not stoke up the sinisterness; Delores’ much-discussed facial disfigurement is hardly horrific here, either.

Still, Gravelle’s interactions with Morahan powerfully drive the play; the scene where Beatrice realises Deflores will force her to sleep with him shows a particularly impressive, taut reversal in their power games. Soon they’re wickedly competing to outdo each other, so damn audacious, we - almost - hope they’ll get away with it.

Musical accompaniment comes from expressionist strings, helping to build a fraught atmosphere - which could do with being ramped up a notch further. Many of the supporting cast are less than compelling. The subplot is often cut or abridged, and you can see why - although the bone-dry, ad-libbing, scene-stealing performance by Pearce Quigley as the servant Lollio is an absolute treat.

Madhouse scenes are also problematic for modern audiences: perhaps I’m being too PC, but I found the grubby, gurning portrayals of the Bedlam inmates to be neither that funny nor poignant enough to bring a thoughtful pay-off.

This staging, with dumbshows and slow scene changes, means the feverish pace this often far-fetched plot needs to carry it can evaporate on occasion. One vignette however - showing Deflores penetrating Beatrice while Alonzo’s ghost presses up behind him - proves Dromgoole knows how to play nasty when he wants to.

To 1 Mar;